South West Business: SMEs club together to get high speed broadband

That’s true Bristol fashion… When a group of entrepreneurs and business owners moved into contemporary office space at Temple Studios, it was almost perfect.

The red-brick building had been converted by developer TCN from a distribution depot for the mail taken from the trains at Temple Meads railway station into an office space with an urban, industrial feel. Being on the station, it’s an easy hop to see London clients and close to lots of other new and growing companies. There’s even a bakery selling first class sausage rolls on the doorstep.Ideal for the app developers, architects, brand agencies and other creative businesses who moved in.Except for one thing… Really poor internet. Oli Gosling, co-founder of Big Fan brand and design agency, a small business with four team members (and a dog), said the slow internet had been damaging his fledgling firm’s reputation.“We work with a lot of people abroad,” he said. “You get everything ready to present a new idea to a client and set up a Skype call but it turns out you could have had a better conversation with Neil Armstrong on the Moon. It doesn’t reflect well on us.“It’s our reputation on the line. If we’ve spent a long time preparing something and we can’t communicate it, it’s very frustrating.”A recent survey of business leaders in the South West by the Business Growth Fund placed digital infrastructure as the top priority for investment.

In the heart of Bristol’s new enterprise zone, they expected better, but the cost of installing something better was prohibitive to a small business.

The solution was an approach characteristic of Bristol. Rather than just curse and grumble – though there was a fair bit of that too – the tenants worked together.

Alex Martin of Halo, Bristol

Alex Martin, pictured above, technical director at another branding agency Halo, which employs. 20 people, shared the frustrations of his peers.

“We send large artwork to printers and send videos so we need fast upload speeds,” he said. “We used to upload over the mobile 4G network because it was quicker.

“We went around the building trying to figure out how we could make it better. We spoke to other people to see if there was an appetite and there very much was. We were all getting faster internet at home than in our office.

“It would have been really expensive for one company to do it on their own. Doing it collectively meant we got affordable fast internet, we can get our work to printers in minutes instead of hours.”

Landlords TCN got involved and looked around for an alternative provider. It found Spectrum Internet, a Welsh internet service provider that was keen to establish a presence in Bristol.

They believed they could provide a better service and crucially without infrastructure costs. They achieved that by taking advantage of a Government scheme to help small businesses get better internet.

Broadband connection vouchers under the Super Connected Cities scheme entitle each business to £3,000 to install high-speed broadband. Companies can pool their vouchers so by working together the tenants had a pot of money big enough to install a fibre system across Temple Studios.

TCN’s centre host Anna Adams began pushing the project forward and encouraging people to sign up, in the face of some scepticism that it would deliver but an overall desire for something that worked.

“Even if a tenant is not a digital company it’s really important to have internet that at least works,” she said. “Everyone was really keen for it but we just had to give them a little push.

“And now the infrastructure is now in place for future occupiers too.”

That legacy is a bonus for the Government, which wanted the scheme to spark a leap forward in high speed internet infrastructure for SMEs. And in cases such as Temple Studios, the benefits will remain even if the individual businesses move on as the fibre cables remain in place.

Spectrum, which is looking to open an office of its own in Bristol, is hoping to deliver that benefit to other parts of the city too.
Corporate account manager Neil Bolton said: “Paintworks is next, the project team are starting work on that. We are in discussion with other sites.

“One of the challenges is education, getting businesses to understand what’s on offer and convincing landlords who can be very sensitive to someone coming in and putting infrastructure in place on their premises.

“It can take six months to get through that and when you think that the grant scheme is now running at £1 million a week, you need to get it done quickly.”

The vouchers scheme was slow to take off but has picked up pace and the £40 million pot is disappearing fast and the money is allocated on a first come first served basis.

So far 1,734 businesses have taken advantage of the scheme in the South West, with 1,000 applications now being made nationally each week.

The Government is urging businesses to take advantage of broadband vouchers before the money runs out.

There are 50 cities eligible but the funds have not been ring fenced for each, so if all the businesses in Swindon get in first, it’s tough luck for Bristol.

Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey said: “Our offer to small businesses has been a tremendous success and is proving incredibly popular.

“More than 40,000 businesses have already taken up our offer which is aimed at boosting both their broadband speeds as well as their bottom line.

“Businesses need to act now to ensure they don’t miss out on this fantastic offer and I’m urging all eligible businesses to apply now before it’s too late.”

Simon Coles, director at Keep Architecture, can vouch for the difference it has made.

“The biggest difficulty for me was doing remote back-ups,” he said. “We only had half a MB upload speed, we would struggle to remotely back up data. It was taking days so we never had backed up data. Now it takes half an hour.

“It means if we had a fire or a break in we could operate remotely. That gives us security. Before it was horrific, now it’s what you expect.”

Matt Hatch, chief executive of apps and games developer Red7Mobile, agrees.

“We absolutely depend on internet,” he said. “One of our guys said to me we need two things to do our jobs, a computer and internet. The internet was always lacking.”

The company was one of the first tenants in Temple Studios back in January 2013.

Matt said: “Until the fibre was installed, the internet was the biggest risk factor to our business.

“We were getting typical ADSL speeds, reliability was poor and the quality was poor so we ended up with three lines, load balancing off those lines but even so reliability was pretty shaky.”

“As CEO I was continually embarrassed by having highly skilled people not able to use high bandwidth internet.”

“Now… so far so good. We don’t sit around every day measuring our internet speed but we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are getting what we would have expected.”

Main image: Simon Coles of Keep Architecture, Oli Gosling of Big Fan, Matt Hatch of Red7mobile, Claire Brown of Spectrum and Alex Martin of Halo who have worked together to get high speed broadband installed at Temple Studios in Bristol. Pic by Jon Kent

 

Who’s eligible for broadband vouchers?

Your business is within an eligible area one of the 50 cities taking part in the scheme. These include Bristol, Swindon, Gloucester, Exeter and Plymouth.

You are an SME, registered charity, social enterprise or sole trader

Installation of your new broadband connection will cost over £100.

The connection is for your business premises. You can apply for a connection at home if this is your main work base, but this does not apply if you work from home occasionally

You are willing to sign up to a minimum 6 month contract with your broadband supplier

The broadband service you select delivers a speed or performance improvement on your current connection.

There are some detailed requirements on speed that you should check before applying

You have not received more than 200,000 euros in grants in the last three years.

Find out more at www.connectionvouchers. co.uk, where you can also find a list of registered suppliers.

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